Section27, Johannesburg, South Africa
Summer Entrepreneurial Internship Program
Johannesburg, South Africa
During my time at Section27, there were two main public health cases that I was working on under the supervision of the senior attorneys. One of the cases was about a mental health crisis in South Africa, where over 100 Mental Health Care Users (MHCUs) had died in the process of the government transferring them from a central facility to under resourced NGOs. As an organization we were representing about 60 of those families with the goal of holding people in the government (particularly the department of health) accountable by suing specific individuals, helping our clients get compensated for their loss, and working together with the department of health to ensure that such a crisis never happens again.
My main role was conducting research on the various policies that came out regarding the transfer of MHCUs to NGOs in a timely manner and drafting up daily memos on how the policies could be improved, more specifically how Section27 could get involved. Two of my most impactful memos were a review on the licensing guidelines for NGOs, a document which I had left under review and to be sent to the government for consideration by the end of my internship. My second most impactful memo was one that looked at how much compensation families that had lost loved ones in the transfer process should receive, a hard task in itself, which turned out to be very impactful for the clients and overall understanding for what justice is in democratic South Africa.
Furthermore, I did a lot of translation for this particular case because of my extensive knowledge and fluency in South African language. This meant that I had the opportunity to sit in on many high level meetings, conduct consultations for clients who could not speak English and learn how to draft up affidavits in a native language then translate later to English.
The second case was about attempts to increase access to emergency medical services in a particular province of the country. This case was more administratively tasked and I found myself doing a lot of numerical data analysis on reports and policies that the department of health had issued, trying to find inconsistencies between what they were reporting and what was actually happening. This was a lot of fun for me because I got to use my statistical skills in an unrelated field, which convinced me that some skills are easily transferable regardless of the industry.
Aside from these two cases, I spent a lot of my time calling and communicating with clients, trying to verify the information we have on file and attempting to gather any other information that might help us in the case. Though calling 90 people a day may seem tasking, I learned to enjoy this a lot because I built relationships with clients and got to understand the importance of human interaction even in the legal space.
I also did a lot of reading, summarizing and writing for my supervisor; whether it be on memos he wanted to work on, or memos they planned on using in litigation. This meant that I carried a file with me home everyday and would have to send something concrete to my supervisor the next day. It was a bit demanding but I enjoyed the fact that it gave me an opportunity to understand the legal terminology and how to think like a lawyer. My supervisor pushed me on this particular aspect of my work to come up with legal arguments that would hold in court and though difficult, it became easier and fun for me.
I thought that coming back to work for a human rights organization would be my way of giving back and re-establishing bond I once had with my home country. I remember after my first few weeks at Section27, I had a check in with my supervisor and I told him that I found a new sense of patriotism since coming back to fight against the injustices in my country. When I look back, I realize that what I termed as a new sense of patriotism was a sign of relief. I was relieved that although not perfect, there are organizations like Section27 and people who are fighting South Africa’s struggle. They tirelessly invest themselves and their work to causes that I know nothing of because they are no longer my reality, since moving to America to study.
My biggest take away from this was that though I should not relinquish my responsibility of paying it forward to organizations such as Section27, I should trust that for now, South Africa is in great hands. This is a hard pill to swallow as someone who had the goal of doing life-changing work during my summer but it is important that as interns coming into developing countries, we humble ourselves to understand that we do not have all the solutions and our role in the summer is limited to the learning experiences we engage in.
There is always something new to learn in the organization and what made Section27 such a fruitful experience for me was that I was learning at every moment. Due to my lack of legal experience, I found myself Googling terms, acts and policies all the time. I found myself watching the morning news, listening to radio talk shows and reading online news wherever I go because in the human rights world, there is always something new going on. Furthermore, I now understand that it is ok to be pushed extremely outside of my comfort zone. There are moments that I experienced professionally and emotionally that left me in a constant state of discomfort. Whether it was having to translate a full meeting consultation from English to Tswana, a language I spent ten months not speaking, or facing tough feedback from my supervisor, there is nothing wrong with discomfort that fuels growth and I can confidently say that I am not the same person who walked through the Section27 doors on my first day as I am now.
Though I had a lot of administrative work, I eventually learned that my work, no matter how insignificant it may appear, matters a lot. During my feedback sessions with my supervisor, we spoke a lot about the small administrative tasks I did. Whether it was calling about 90 clients to ask for their identity numbers or compiling files for court, organizations that have large impact focus on the details. In the moment, I did not always enjoy the small tasks, but in retrospect when I see how those tasks help fill the bigger picture; I am so proud of the work I have done there.
I also learned a lot from reading and writing. Although this statement can sometimes be overrated, I do think that there is a lot to learn from just reading and writing. Over the course of my time at Section27, I have read more books, articles, journals and affidavits than I do during exam season and I have written more than I have in all my English classes combined. I understand now that the reason I enjoyed it so much was because it helped me think. My supervisor mentioned that the best lawyers are those that can think, and I think being pushed to read and write as much as I was at Section27 helped my way of thinking.
Overall, I had an exceptional time at Section27. It was not always easy and I did not always enjoy the emotional strain the nature of the work put on me, but I did learn a lot and through time, I watched myself grow more comfortable in the organization and start contributing more than what is required from an intern. Moreover, what makes me the most grateful is that I had a phenomenal team that sought to involve me in everything that happened. The people at Section27 do not look down on anyone based on their level of qualification, even as someone who knew nothing about law, the team always pushed me to learn and apply my knowledge. Looking back, I think my team sometimes forgot that I was not actual lawyer and they would go ahead and give me tasks that I would struggle figuring out, but did eventually. I have grown as a person, in my career prospects and as a citizen of the world by just spending eight weeks with Section27. At the end of my reflection note to Section27 I quoted Confucius who said: “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.”
And I think this sums up what it was like working for Section27.